That big Blue Wave that is supposed to carry Democrats to victory in the fall general election may be building, but on Tuesday it looked far more like a wave pool than a tsunami.
With candidates in almost all congressional races and in most parts of Texas this year, the Democrats certainly showed enthusiasm, driving more voters to the polls than in any non-presidential year primary since 2002. Their early vote numbers outpaced the Republicans and surpassed their own primary early vote in the presidential contest of 2016. All told, the Democrats had more than a million people vote in their primary. But with more than 99 percent of the state’s election precincts reporting by Wednesday morning, the Republicans were on a pace to see half a million more votes cast in their primary than the Democrats. In fact, the only Republican primary — presidential or off-year — since 2002 with a larger turnout was the presidential contest of 2016.
Party primaries are a demonstration of the strength of the base vote, and the Democrats just were not close to equal to the Republicans. Based on the numbers, the Republicans are just as motivated as the Democrats.
Republican incumbent U.S. Senator Ted Cruz and his Democratic challenger — congressman Beto O’Rourke — handily won their party nominations. But Cruz got his with 85 percent of the Republican turnout while racking up almost 660,000 more votes than O’Rourke. Although the Kennedyesque candidate from El Paso is suppose to lead the Democratic ticket this fall, his two little-known primary opponents took almost 40 percent of the vote. This is not evidence of O’Rourke as a dominant candidate.
Governor Greg Abbott received the GOP nomination for another term. Against token opposition, it is not surprising Abbott racked up big numbers; however, Abbott was claiming his victory with about 380,000 more votes than the entire Democratic field of gubernatorial candidates. Former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez captured a runoff with Houston businessman Andrew White. During her acceptance speech, Valdez appeared tired and chewed gum. Looking far more like a candidate ready to challenge Abbott, White was more animated and clearly articulated his positions, but he trailed Valdez by more than 100,00 votes, which is a big gap to close in a runoff.
Though strong in his own race, Abbott lost some of his prestige when two of the three incumbents whose reelection he had opposed survived their primaries. Representative Sarah Davis, of a district that includes the Houston Medical Center, easily defeated an Abbott-backed challenger, Susanna Dokupil. In San Antonio, Representative Lyle Larson defeated Chris Fails. The only incumbent on Abbott’s target list to lose was Wayne Faircloth of Galveston, who probably would have lost to Mayes Middleton even without the governor’s help. The decision to enter incumbent races will hurt Abbott’s relations with the Texas House, which were frosty already.
One bright spot for the Democrats: their primary result almost guarantees that Texas will send its first Latina to Congress. State Senator Sylvia Garcia of Houston won her primary to replace retiring congressman Gene Green, and El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar took the party nomination to replace O’Rourke in the U.S. House. Both have token Republican opposition and are expected to win the general election.
The largest flop of the night was the attempt by educators to send a message to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick to back off on issues such as private-school vouchers and blocking paycheck deductions for association dues. The educators put their support behind challenger Scott Milder, but he received only about a quarter of the GOP primary vote as Patrick coasted to nomination for another term. Apparently, there was a surge of educators voting. It’s just that they voted in the Democratic primary where Patrick wasn’t listening.
The two biggest Republican punching bags of this election — Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller — won their primaries in walk-offs. Bush had angered many conservatives over his handling of the “reimaging” of the Alamo, but easily defeated former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and two other challengers. Although Miller is the biggest buffoon in state government, he dusted two opponents. But with retired Air Force Colonel Kim Olson as his Democratic challenger, Miller may wish he was back in his rodeo days, because, even if she doesn’t win, Olson will make his life miserable with an unrelenting campaign.
If the educators had a bad night, so did the far-right Empower Texans. The group had targeted sixteen Texas House Republican incumbents for defeat in an effort to affect next year’s election of a House speaker. (The members of the House are the ones who elect a speaker.) The targeted members are fiscal conservatives, not social policy conservatives. Of Empower Texans’s targets, only Faircloth and Jason Villalba of Dallas went down to defeat. Now, Empower Texans will have to defend about a dozen social conservative incumbent Republicans in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who are in potential swing districts that the Democrats are challenging.
If the Democrats’ Blue Wave strikes anywhere, it will be in several congressional races that are on the radar of the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Quick tour:
Congressional District 7 in Houston is held by Republican John Culberson, who won re-nomination with more than 75 percent of the vote. On the Democratic side, there will be a runoff between attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and Laura Moser, who recently was under fire from the DCCC as unelectable. That may have occurred because Moser’s husband worked for Bernie Sanders in his 2016 challenge to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The congressional district that covers the territory between San Antonio and Austin has been held for years by now-retiring Republican congressman Lamar Smith. The 21st District is likely to stay with whomever wins the Republican primary this year, so, not surprisingly, there were 18 Republican candidates. The Republican runoff will be between businessman and anti-abortion candidate Matt McCall and Chip Roy, a former chief of staff to Cruz and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. On the Democratic side, Mary Street Wilson — who bills herself as a pastor and lesbian — leads going into a runoff with Joseph Kopser, an entrepreneur and scientist.
Congressional District 23 stretches from San Antonio to El Paso along the Rio Grande River and currently is held by Republican Will Hurd. Clinton carried this district in 2016 and received more total votes than Hurd, even though he was in a tough reelection campaign. The Democratic frontrunner in Tuesday’s vote returns was former Air Force intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones, who will face Rick Trevino, of San Antonio, in a runoff. Judy Canales of Eagle Pass and Trevino were at about 17 percent of the vote — and just over 129 votes separating them — with former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Hulings at 15 percent.
In Dallas, Democrats lined up to take on incumbent Republican congressman Pete Sessions in the 32nd District. In 2016, this was a real kick-yourself district for Democrats. They ran no one against Sessions, and Clinton carried the district. The magic moment probably has passed, but that didn’t stop seven Democrats from running this year. Former pro football player Colin Allred had almost 38 percent of the vote. He will face a runoff with former Obama administration official Lillian Salerno.
One other notable factor in the election results — depending on the runoffs — is the Democratic Party for the first time may have three lesbians leading major portions of its ticket: Valdez, Ortiz Jones, and Wilson. As much as the election of Donald Trump prompted women to run for office this year, the bathroom-bill battles in last year’s legislative sessions prompted 49 openly LGBTQ candidates to run in both party primaries this year, according to Out Smart Magazine. Valdez alluded to this in her speech accepting a place in the Democratic gubernatorial runoff. “Today, Texas Democrats had the first opportunity to push back against hate, and we showed up in great numbers to do that,” Valdez said.